|Founder||Rabbi Eliezer Silver|
New York City,
|Mike Tress Chaim Dovid Zwiebel|
|Revenue||11,422,304 United States dollar (2017)|
Number of employees
|Part of a series on|
|Jews and Judaism|
Agudath Israel of America (Hebrew: אגודת ישראל באמריקה) (also called Agudah) is an American organization that represents Haredi Orthodox Jews. It is loosely affiliated with the international World Agudath Israel. Agudah seeks to meet the needs of the Haredi community, advocates for its religious and civil rights, and services its constituents through charitable, educational, and social service projects across North America.
Agudah serves as a leadership and policy umbrella organization for Haredi Jews in the United States, representing the vast majority of members of the yeshiva world, sometimes known by the old label of misnagdim, as well as a large number of Hasidic groups. However, not all Hasidic groups are affiliated with Agudath Israel. For example, the Hasidic group Satmar, which is vehemently anti-Zionist, dislikes Agudah's relatively moderate stance towards the State of Israel.
Agudah has ideological connections with both the Agudat Israel party and with Degel HaTorah (Flag of the Torah), two Israeli Haredi political parties that have representation in the Knesset (Israel's parliament). In Israel, Degel and Agudah are in a political coalition called United Torah Judaism (UTJ).
The original Agudath Israel movement was established in Europe in 1912 by some of the most famous Orthodox rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagen (the Chafetz Chaim), Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna, the Radziner Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Elazar Leiner, the Gerrer Rebbe (the Imrei Emes), and the Chortkover Rebbe. It grew during the 1920s and 1930s to be the political, communal, and cultural voice of those Orthodox Jews who were not part of Zionism's Orthodox Jewish Mizrachi party.
Rabbi Eliezer Silver, an Eastern European-trained rabbi, established the first office of Agudath Israel in America during the 1930s, organizing its first conference in 1939. Some of the early rabbinic leaders of the organization included Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman, Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, Rabbi Leo Jung, Rabbi Herbert Goldstein, Rabbi Joshua Bäume, and Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik. After the Holocaust, some prominent rabbis who made their home in America established a moetzes ("supreme council") known as the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and the movement began to grow rapidly, with the rise of the yeshiva-based and Hasidic Orthodox communities.
Mike Tress led the expansion of the movement during the early 1940s as its chief lay leader, until his death in 1967. His cousin Rabbi Moshe Sherer then took the reins as president, and the organization flourished further in size and accomplishments. After his passing in May 1998, he was succeeded by Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, as Executive Vice President. In 2008, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, having served Agudah as general counsel and director of government affairs, took over as Executive Vice-President. In 2016, his salary was $220,000.
In April 2020, Agudath Israel of America head Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, 89 years old, died after contracting COVID-19, one month after he urged American Orthodox Jews to follow social distancing and other precautionary guidelines in response to the coronavirus outbreak, saying: "We cannot behave the way we did last week or two weeks ago. We're told that the halakha (Jewish law) is that we must listen to doctors, whether it's about a sick person or Yom Kippur".
Agudah's policies and leadership are directed by its Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages), composed primarily of rosh yeshivas (the chief spiritual and scholarly authority in a yeshiva) and Hasidic rebbes (who head Hasidic dynasties and organizations). The Moetzes sets all major policies and guides the organization according to its precepts of Da'as torah (Hebrew: דעת תורה), generally translated as Torah knowledge/direction. Rabbi Yaakov Perlow (recently deceased), who was the Novominsker Rebbe and a member of the Moetzes, was appointed as the Rosh Agudat Yisrael ("Head of Agudath Israel").
The executive staff includes Rabbi Yitzchok Ehrman as COO, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel as the Executive Vice President, Rabbi Labish Becker as the Executive Director, and Rabbi A.D. Motzen as the National Director for State Relations.
There are close to one hundred Agudah-affiliated synagogues across the United States and Canada.
The Agudah takes positions on many political, religious, and social issues, primarily guided by its Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. It uses these stances to advise its members, advocate for its constituency in the halls of government, and file amicus briefs on behalf of the Haredi Orthodox Jewish community in the United States.
In 1956, for example, the moetzes issued a written ruling forbidding Orthodox rabbis to join with any Reform or Conservative rabbis in rabbinical communal professional organizations that then united the various branches of America's Jews, such as the Synagogue Council of America.
This position was not endorsed by the Modern Orthodox. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University had initially aligned himself with Agudah, but later established his independent views on these matters and a host of other issues, such as attitudes towards college education and attitudes towards the secular-led Israeli governments. Rabbi Soloveitchik believed it important to nurture the more modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). However, at times, some of the more traditionalist rabbis at Yeshiva University aligned themselves with Agudah's positions.
In 2015 and 2017, Agudah denounced moves to ordain women. It went even further, declaring Yeshivat Maharat, Open Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and other affiliated entities to be similar to other dissident movements throughout Jewish history in having rejected basic tenets of Judaism. Avi Shafran, director of public affairs, wrote: "... women ... assuming positions of public leadership is ... antithetical to the concept of tzniut (modesty)." Agudah forbade ordained Orthodox female clergy from being hired to lead congregations. Dr. Noam Stadlan, a board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, wrote: "On this issue, the Agudah is irrelevant to Modern Orthodoxy in the same way Satmar or Neturei Karta views are irrelevant on issues of Zionism."
In 2019, commenting on abortion, Agudath Israel said: "Jewish tradition teaches that a human fetus has status and dignity, and that abortion is prohibited in the vast majority of pregnancies", with certain exceptions in which it is permitted and in others where it is required. Other Orthodox New York rabbis offered opposing positions.
Also in 2019, Agudath lobbied against a New Jersey bill that would have ended a policy allowing New Jersey parents to not immunize their children—because of religious beliefs, but to still enroll them in school. The bill included an exemption for private schools. In the 2018-2019 school year, religious exemptions in New Jersey had grown to 2.6%. Doctors and public health experts had said the bill was urgently needed to prevent the level of measles outbreak that spread across the region in 2018 (the largest outbreak in three decades in the area emphasized that there is overwhelming scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective.
While Agudath was created as a bulwark to fight against Zionism, the Rabbinic leadership of Agudath did permit "with great reluctance" participation in the government after the Israeli state was established in 1948. The reason given was that "the parliament is not an ideological organization; its purpose is to perform the mundane task of running the everyday life of the citizens of the country. It was against our will that this parliament was formed, and it has the power to interfere with inyanei hadas and to prevent the religious community from living a life of Torah. Thus, we were forced to send representatives there to fight for our survival." Agudah takes stances on issues affecting the Haredi sector in Israel; in contradistinction to the more stridently anti-Zionist Haredi communal organizations.
Aside from its national branch in Manhattan, Agudah has active branches in the regions of California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, New England, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Ontario, Quebec, and Washington, D.C. The regional director of each branch lobbies the judicial and legislative branches of their state and local governments on any issue deemed morally or religiously important to their constituency (for example, abortion, physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, school vouchers/school choice). Agudah's advocacy in New York state is led by Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Director of New York Government Affairs.
Agudath Israel's federal activities are coordinated by Rabbi Abba Cohen, the Director and Counsel of the organization's Washington, D.C. office. Agudah was the first Orthodox Jewish group to open an office in Washington, in 1988, and maintains ongoing relations with the White House and executive agencies, as well as with the U.S. Congress, on various domestic and foreign issues. Agudath Israel World Organization also has a representative at the United Nations.
Agudah files amicus briefs in cases at all levels of the judiciary, often signing on as one of the organization signatories to a brief authored by Nat Lewin or the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs.
Official spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran denied claims by The Jewish Week that Aguda "is opposed to both the mandated reporting and finger printing, and background check legislation" then under consideration, and cited a memorandum from 2 years prior expressing strong support for the legislation. The difference is Aguda's 2006 support was for legislation that passed in 2007 permitting but not mandating fingerprinting/background checking.
Agudah maintains a network of summer youth camps (including Camp Agudah, Machane Ephraim, Camp Bnos, Camp Chayl Miriam, and Camp Bnoseinu in the Catskills in New York, as well as camps in the Midwest, California, and Toronto, Canada).
Sometimes referred to as "Pirchei / Zeirei", this was part of the work by Mike Tress.
"JEP" (Jewish Education Program) is known for its release hour work, and was identified by Harav Yaakov Perlow as "the JEP operation of Zeirei Agudath Israel" in a 1977 interview, in which he spoke about "to take off a seder from yeshiva and go out and speak at a release hour at a public school."
Agudah has a number of social service branches that cater to the elderly, poor, or disabled. It has a job training program called COPE, a job placement division, and a housing program. The Agudah is responsible for the founding of other national institutions and projects, including the Beis Yaakov girls' school system, and the national Daf Yomi Commission.
Agudah advocates its positions in several ways:
... Tress, the legendary Agudah leader who would transform Zeirei Agudath Israel ...